Sacramento animal shelter project installs sound insulation to cut stress

At the Front Street Animal Shelter, one building is much quieter than usual.

It houses more than 40 of the loudest dogs – breeds such as boxers and bulldogs. Yet their barks are muffled and less piercing than the sound that reverberates down a separate run just next door, where fewer dogs are housed.

The difference is credited to the 64 sound-dampening panels installed June 5 in one of the five buildings that house the shelter’s 160 dogs. The $27,000 sound-reducing project is expected to decrease the stress levels in the dogs and prevent further sound-related complaints from the workers, said Gina Knepp, the shelter’s animal care services manager who is overseeing the project.

Workers immediately noticed the improvement after the installation, which resulted in a 20 percent decrease in sound intensity, according to a sound test done last Friday by the City Safety Office.

“ ‘Calmer’ is the word they’re using,” said Richard Friedman, board president of the Sacramento Front Street Animal Shelter Advocates, the nonprofit that applied for the grant to fund the initial project. “You don’t have to be a sound engineer to hear the difference.”

Each of the test building’s 32 kennels is equipped with a pair of 2-feet-by-4-feet aluminum panels from Lab Products Inc., placed on either side of the walls separating individual kennels.

Knepp decided to install the pilot set of panels in the building that housed the “more difficult, fractious and frightened dogs,” as she described them.

“You can’t even have a conversation where there are no sound panels, but you can speak to someone in the building where there are,” Knepp said, describing the difference.

Loud environments can make dogs aggressive, dog experts said. Knepp hopes the quieter environment will allow the shelter to reduce the number of dogs it must euthanize due to extreme aggression.

She also hopes that the project will increase the dogs’ overall “adoptability,” which she is monitoring by looking at the dogs’ length of stay and each animal’s temperament when they leave the shelter.

According to Melissa Bain, an animal behaviorist and assistant professor of Clinical Animal Behavior at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, noise levels in veterinary facilities and shelters can affect the attention animals receive.

“Perhaps if it was quiet, the workers and the doctors would spend more time there, and (prospective) adopters would look at the animals longer,” Bain said. “When I was working in shelters and if it was really noisy, I did my job and I left.”

Excessive noise is a longtime problem at the shelter, but little could be done in the years following the recession, when the city reduced the shelter’s budget, cutting 10 staff positions, and an increasing number of people were giving up their dogs. But as the budget improved and many fewer dogs came in compared to the height of the recession, the shelter revisited the possibility of adopting new sound-reduction technology.

The Sacramento Front Street Animal Shelter Advocates, formed 18 months ago, received a $10,000 grant for the initial project from The Petco Foundation and is working on a grant application to the PEDIGREE Foundation due on June 30 to add panels to the remaining buildings.

Because the project could also offer human benefits, such as prevention of hearing impairment, the City Safety Office contributed $14,000. Community donations made up the difference.

“It wasn’t only good for the dogs,” Knepp said. “It was good for the people, especially our workers,” many of whom she said can spend up to an hour in the dog kennels.

This may be one of the cheapest and most sensible solutions, said dog experts.

Denae Wagner, a veterinarian who consults on shelter design, said that there are compromises to different housing setups. One alternative would require lowering the ceiling, but this harbors dirt and it can cost more to tear down the existing facility. Another arrangement that has dogs stay behind glass enclosures, though quieter, limits the interaction between the dog and potential adopters, and can be problematic for owners trying to identify lost pets.

Bain and Wagner said physical facility changes are not the only methods to mitigate noise-related stress. Other health-boosting practices, such as maintaining clean kennels, training the dogs to be quiet, taking them for walks and feeding them treats during visits, can keep the animals calm.

Although Knepp and the shelter’s advocates said it will be another month before they can determine whether the panels are statistically improving the dogs’ outcome, the staff’s positive feedback and their own observations suggest they can look forward to equipping the four remaining dog runs with the same technology, estimated to cost $70,000.

“We’ll try anything at Front Street,” Knepp said.

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